by Armen Avanessian
I want to pursue the question of the new interest in materialism by way of an(apparent) detour, namely: with a view to determining from what direction, for what reasons, and via what signs this new interest is expressed. Because of the increasing lack of interest on the part of official academic institutions and their pitiful failure at hosting or producing new philosophy, it is now an expanded art field that gives impetus to various movements and transformations in theory. This expanded field includes not only artists and curators but also galleries, art institu-tions, art academies, art journals, and the theoreticians and critics whom they pub-lish. At times, it is this expanded field that enables individual theoreticians to con-tinue working at all. On the other hand, in view of the fundamental crisis of a con-temporary art scene that appears increasingly directionless, and that can betermed materialistic primarily in an economic sense, the new speculative realism(or in Quentin Meillassoux’s case, speculative materialism) has been stripped forbuzzwords. This process is well known, and has been undertaken in order to dis-guise extreme emptiness and disorientation in the art field (zombie-conceptual?pre-internet? post-digital?) with new concepts—this time from the subject areas of materialism, speculation, and ontology. In particular, one variant of speculativerealism has achieved rapid success in the art world, namely Graham Harman’sobject-oriented ontology. There are a couple of obvious reasons why artists andcurators have embraced this ontology so joyfully: Harman developed a pan-psychictheory largely by re-reading positions that were already established—and hencecomprehensible for the art business—such as Husserl’s phenomenology, Latour’snetwork theory, etc. And he endorses aesthetics (as prima philosophia, first philoso-phy), which is fundamentally and inherently “correlationist,” depending as it doesupon a perceptual dialectic of subject or object. Finally, there is the ontologicalenhancement or upgrading of the status of objects, an aspect of his thought that has certainly not slowed the economic materialism of the art world.
The fog is slowly lifting after several years of hype, and we now see positionsand demarcations more clearly. This relates first of all to the several kinds of new speculative materialism or realism. This occurs not least through the recent prominence of accelerationism, a political theory in which the influence of Deleuze and Guattari meets that of a new Promethean rationalism. With the lat-ter, the significance of analytical-philosophical and linguistic-philosophicalthought clearly enters the foreground. A positive side effect of this is the over-coming of a rather naive initial emphasis—it could also be termed somewhat sim-plistic public relations—namely, the assumption that a speculative turn would sim-ply overcome the linguistic turn; or that an uncritical, purely speculative and base-less ontology would or could now operate in place of critical epistemology or lan-guage philosophy. Such simple models maintain a common dichotomy of either language or matter (a misunderstanding that is no less widespread in poststruc-turalism itself). The second of these terms—matter—is at times excluded in thesemodels as impossible and at times is longingly invoked through aesthetics. In place of such unhelpful juxtapositions, there will hopefully be a greater material-istic reliance upon thought or language, not as opposite terms of a simple dichotomy but as recursive aspects of world and matter together: of language best understood from its material dynamics. This is also a linguistic-ontological pre-supposition for every (future) attempt at an understanding of art that is no longer aesthetic but rather poetic or perhaps poietic (meaning productive, in the sense of creating something genuinely new).
The other shift in the understanding of speculative materialism can be observed in the field of art (theory). Following the Speculative Realism Conference, organized by Robin Mackay and Ray Brassier and held in London in 2007, the initial reception in the art world was at times enthusiastic. This is attest-ed to by numerous anecdotes regarding object-oriented art students who are either arguing about or supposedly producing archifossiles (materials indicating tra-ces of phenomena anterior to the emergence of life), or trendy gallery owners try-ing to associate their artists with the appropriate theoreticians, the latter them-selves all too often readily acting as catalogue text writers for the art business at the same time that they banally lambast it as corrupt (instead of systematically pon-dering the material software and hardware of the art business); or the prominence of various positions of the new materialism at the last Documenta. In short, there have been a great many efforts that have led at the very least to successfully estab-lishing a new, young, fresh generation of artists in a global market between Basel and Miami who benefit from their association with speculative philosophies.
Old wine in a new bottle? Same old sculptures—this time 3-D printed? Yet more decorative paintings with some new industrial colors or maybe on synthetic materials? This is pretty much the impression one gathers when following somequite fruitless debates about post-internet art. Regardless of these discussions thehorizon or the potential of the digital revolution has until now hardly had a posi-tive impact upon ultimately decisive questions such as the economic terms of thedistribution forms of contemporary art (as long as one doesn’t count the flippingphenomenon or the importance of Instagram to gallery sales as a progressivedevelopment). By and large, everything appears to have remained pretty much asit was. Critics still invoke the critical potential of art objects and the impressionthey make upon bourgeois subjects when those works hang upon their walls, andart historians still mystify white cubes as aesthetic experience in a profitable way (to say nothing of the ever-increasing volume of money that is laundered by meansof contemporary art). That these practices continue to take place in relation tospeculative and materialistic ideas, to concepts that are opposed to every form of correlationalism, is a pity, and certainly helpful neither for art nor for philosophy.
In the longer term, I would hope that the real philosophical and art theoreti-cal potential of speculative realism or materialism might emerge more clearly, even if this were to have a threatening impact upon the business as usual aspect of contemporary art.1 Meanwhile, so-called critical art and its aesthetics does not combat the new spirit of capitalism (Boltanski and Chiapello), but by its nature con-tinues to propagate that spirit. An art truly informed by speculative materialism would on the contrary strive not only for a transformation on the discursive levelbut also for an acceleration of the existing platforms of the art system: the materi-al-economic forms of production of art and the paths for its distribution. This alsoapplies to the material power of images to transform our reality, a power that hasfortunately been dealt with recently in a more concise way by artists and theoreti-cians. Such images can also shape reality and can be integrated recursively in actu-ality, instead of merely reflecting it over and over again. Rather than an aesthetic-critical art that bears such an affinity with our modern capitalism, a materialisticart, in a sense that is poietic and speculative, would aim at a new art, no longer our contemporary art.
1. See, initially, Suhail Malik, “Reason to Destroy Contemporary Art,”Spike Art Quarterly 35(2013), pp. 128–34. On the question of other platforms for politics and new economics, see my project for this year’s Vienna gallery festival,Tomorrow Today (www.curatedby.at). Here I experiment with dif-ferent economic models for a postcapitalist and postcontemporary art.
—Translated from the German by Alan Paddle
Armen Avanessian is a philosopher and political theorist.
He is co-founder of the bilingual research platform Spekulative Poetik www.spekulative-poetik.de and of Bureau of Cultural Strategies (https://www.bureauforculturalstrategies.com).
His publications include Irony and the Logic of Modernity (De Gruyter, 2015),
Present Tense: A Poetics, with Anke Hennig (Bloomsbury, 2015);
Speculative Drawing, with Andreas Töpfer (Sternberg Press, 2014);
and the forthcoming titles Metanoia: A Speculative Ontology of Language, Thinking, and the Brain, with Anke Hennig (Bloomsbury, 2017);
Overwrite. Ethics of Knowledge – Poetics of Existence. Berlin: Sternberg Press 2017;
and Miamification (Sternberg Press 2017).
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